10 April Tussles Worth Watching

By Brian Knapp Mar 30, 2015
Ben Askren on April 24 will once again be front and center for the One Championship promotion. | Photo: Will Fox

In an effort to bring more attention to the global stage of mixed martial arts, this list does not focus on major North American-based promotions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator MMA and the World Series of Fighting ...

Ben Askren wasted no time in climbing another company ladder.

Askren will put his perfect professional record and One Championship welterweight title on the line for the first time when he meets Luis Santos in the One Championship 26 “Valor of Champions” main event on April 24 at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay, Philippines. The 30-year-old Olympian has scored consecutive first-round finishes since arriving in the Singapore-based organization a little less than a year ago.

A four-time NCAA All-American wrestler and two-time national champion at the University of Missouri, Askren has enjoyed a successful transition to MMA. The Roufusport-Evolve MMA representative has rattled off 14 straight wins to start his career, capturing welterweight gold in two organizations. The former Bellator champion last appeared at One Championship 19 in August, when he needed just 84 seconds to dispose of Nobutatsu Suzuki with punches and claim the promotion’s 170-pound title at the Dubai World Trade Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Though he has come under scrutiny for a willingness to grind out decisions, Askren has finished each of his last four opponents: Suzuki, Bakhtiyar Abbasov, Andrey Koreshkov and Karl Amoussou.

Santos will enter the cage on a seven-fight winning streak. One of MMA’s most experienced fighters, the 35-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has secured 48 of his 61 career wins by knockout, technical knockout or submission. Victories over Ildemar Alcantara, Jorge Patino, Ivan Jorge and Shamar Bailey anchor his extensive resume, which dates back to his March 2000 debut in his native Brazil. Santos made his first appearance under the One Championship banner in November, when he took care of Abbasov with kicks in less than a minute.

The Askren-Santos title clash is but one under-the-radar matchup worth monitoring during the month of April. Here are nine more:

Ricardo Lucas Ramos vs. Justin Rader
Legacy Fighting Championship 41
April 3 | Tulsa, Okla.

Ramos has begun to surface as one of Brazil’s more promising young prospects at 135 pounds. The 19-year-old has stopped five of his first six opponents, four of them inside one round. “Carcacinha” last competed at an MMA Super Heroes event in May, when he submitted previously unbeaten Jungle Fight alum Fabio Lima with a third-round triangle choke in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Rader, a decorated Oklahoma-based submission grappler, has kicked off his MMA career with three straight finishes.

Justin Lawrence vs. Sam Toomer
Resurrection Fighting Alliance 25
April 10 | Sioux Falls, S.D.

The undefeated Toomer will receive what many view as the first substantial test of his career when he challenges Lawrence for the Resurrection Fighting Alliance featherweight championship. Spawned by The Arena in San Diego, Toomer, a tall, rangy featherweight, pushed his record to 9-0 in December, when he took a majority decision from Altair Alencar at RFA 21. Lawrence, who appeared on Season 15 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” has rattled off back-to-back victories since being released by the UFC. The 24-year-old Black House rep last fought in August, when he claimed the vacant RFA title at 145 pounds with a five-round unanimous decision over Mark Dickman.

Vyacheslav Vasilevsky vs. Ramazan Emeev
M-1 Challenge 56
April 10 | Moscow

Vasilevsky will defend his M-1 Global middleweight championship in a rematch against Emeev, whom he stopped on fourth-round punches in September. A four-time world champion in combat sambo, the 26-year-old had already held M-1 Global gold as a light heavyweight. Vasilevsky, who has won 24 of his past 25 bouts, rides into his first title defense at 185 pounds on the strength of an eight-fight winning streak, which includes victories over Trevor Prangley and Maiquel Jose Falcao Goncalves. Emeev, 27, had won eight fights in a row before being upended by Vasilevsky.

Photo: Keith Mills/Sherdog.com

“Babalu” returns on April 11.
Renato Sobral vs. Volkan Oezdemir
Strength and Honor Championship 11
April 11 | Geneva, Switzerland

Sobral will walk out of retirement to take on Oezdemir, as the former Strikeforce champion will compete for the first time since he left his gloves in the cage following a technical knockout loss to Jacob Noe at Bellator 96 in June 2013. Now 39 -- he turns 40 this summer -- and well past his prime, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt remains an intriguing figure among hardcore fans. “Bablu” has defeated three current or former UFC champions: Maurice Smith, Mauricio Rua and Robbie Lawler. The once-beaten Oezdemir rebounded from his first pro loss with a first-round technical knockout against Paco Estevez in September.

Jonas Bilharinho vs. Fabiano Fernandes
Jungle Fight 76
April 11 | Sao Paulo, Brazil

Bilharinho will attempt to become a two-division champion when he meets Fernandes for the vacant Jungle Fight featherweight title. The 24-year-old Team Nogueira standout already holds promotional gold at 135 pounds, having defeated Mario Israel by split decision for the bantamweight crown a year ago. Bilharinho has posted five consecutive wins since his pro debut against Carlos Peixoto resulted in a three-round draw in 2011. Fernandes, 32, trains out of the X-Gym in Brail. He suffered his only three losses to Edimilson Souza (twice) and Douglas Silva de Andrade, both of whom have since reached the UFC.

Mike Rhodes vs. Charlie Brown
North American Fighting Championship “Explosion”
April 11 | Waukesha, Wis.

Rhodes was cut loose by the UFC following losses to George Sullivan, Robert Whittaker and Erick Silva. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old Roufusport product has picked up the pieces and returned to the regional circuit for further seasoning. A former Resurrection Fighting Alliance champion, Rhodes figures to return to the Octagon -- or find his way to another major promotion -- at some point in the not-too-distant future. The road back begins with Brown, who halted a two-fight losing streak with a 15-second knockout on Tom Angeloff at a Wisconsin Xtreme Cage Fighting event in November.

Katja Kankaanpaa vs. Livia Renata Souza
Invicta Fighting Championships 12
April 24 | Kansas City, Kan.

Two of the world’s premier women’s strawweights will duke it out, as Kankaanpaa puts her Invicta Fighting Championships title on the line against the undefeated and fast-rising Souza. A Finnish export, the 33-year-old Kankaanpaa responded to a three-round decision loss to Joanne Calderwood in December 2013 with consecutive submission victories over Alyona Rassohyna and Stephanie Eggink, the latter bringing with it Invicta gold. Souza has hit the ground running in MMA and will carry an unblemished 7-0 record into the cage against the “Killer Bunny.”

Colin Fletcher vs. Andre Winner
British Association of Mixed Martial Arts 20
April 25 | Birmingham, England

Two “Ultimate Fighter” finalists find themselves on a collision course, with Fletcher and Winner booked for battle inside the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts organization. The 32-year-old Fletcher, who reached the finals on “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes,” has won three of his last four fights, losing only to heralded Tunisian prospect Mansour Barnaoui. Once viewed as a can’t-miss talent, Winner was dismissed by the UFC after compiling a 2-4 record in six appearances there. He has put together a four-fight winning streak since his decision loss to Mateusz Gamrot in KSW in 2013.

Marlon Sandro vs. Isao Kobayashi
Pancrase 266
April 26 | Tokyo

Nova Uniao’s Sandro has returned to the promotion he once ruled. The 38-year-old former Pancrase and Sengoku champion last saw action at Bellator 119 in May, when he earned a three-round unanimous decision over onetime International Fight League cornerstone Chris Horodecki. Sandro, a two-time Bellator tournament runner-up, has never lost in four Pancrase appearances (3-0-1). Kobayashi, the former lightweight King of Pancrase, has not competed since his 12-fight unbeaten streak was halted in a decision defeat to Kazunori Yokota on New Year’s Eve. The Sakaguchi Dojo export remains one of Japan’s prized young fighters.

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